Tuesday 23 October 2018

Flimsy Wales pack bullied by Ireland

Gatland’s battle-plan impresses but forwards ultimately lose war

Ireland’s Keith Earls and Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny challenge for the ball on the Welsh tryline during Saturday’s Six Nations clash. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland’s Keith Earls and Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny challenge for the ball on the Welsh tryline during Saturday’s Six Nations clash. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

AS the green shirts flocked to greet Cian Healy's bonus-point try for Ireland, one of them spotted a desultory figure in red sheepishly trudging towards his posts.

Even with the aid of binocular vision it is impossible to lip-read Peter O'Mahony's gesture of 'consolation' as the booming presence of Alun Wyn Jones mooches into the fray and stands square on with the Corkman.

Ultimately, Wyn Jones is the one who takes a backward step; O'Mahony striding away purposefully, slapping his hands together with the satisfied gait of a farmer rounding up his cattle.

No one moment can possibly sum up a pell-mell, thrill-a-minute encounter in the Lansdowne Road ice-box, but, for now, this will do nicely.

Ireland bullied the Welsh into submission with sufficient dominance to ensure that even if at times it seemed the visitors could score at will once they reached wide open prairies, they would never get enough opportunities to do so.

Futile

Only the winners can write the history of these breathless days; the losers are merely left to toss agonising addenda with which to prosecute their own futile argument.

Gareth Davies had tossed a verbal grenade into the pre-match patter, declaring that his side would be the one targeting a bonus-point.

That they were, perhaps, one pass away from doing so is as close to a sense of truth as the visitors would like themselves to believe.

The bottom line is that Ireland had beaten them to the bonus point haul nearly half an hour earlier; we suggest this is what O'Mahony was gently reminding the diminutive scrum-half of as his side wheeled away triumphantly following Healy's try.

The Welsh, in keeping with a grand tradition of enterprise often ceded in recent times to brute force, unveiled some sparkling and inventive rugby.

Their facility to create overlaps and disconnect the Irish three-quarter line, seemingly at will, was thrilling to behold and cued much love-bombing of Rob Howley from the Irish camp.

The fundamental issue for Warren Gatland's side is that they were never allowed to dictate the physical terms of engagement from where to elaborate their game-plan.

And so they were submerged by the dominance of an Irish pack shorn of some of its leading lights, and an uncelebrated centre delivering a tour de force on and off the ball.

There was also the emerging truth of a more vivid attacking Irish style, notably from deep and within their new-found passion on each tram-line.

And, when they needed to - and because they knew they were able to - Ireland just tried to smash holes through the middle. More often than not, they found them.

Had Johnny Sexton been fit - and not further damaged by a well-aimed Welsh knee to the behind - his men would have been out of sight by half-time.

Instead they trailed 13-5 before those 'championship moment' scores either side of half-time swung the game and then their perplexing laxness in defence returned to bite them, ensuing a grandstand finish.

In truth, the breathless conclusion flattered Wales.

It appeared as if they were aping their recent, brief run of encouraging results against Ireland; defending for their lives and picking off scores.

They had the players to do the latter, but were nowhere near sufficiently resourced to do the former.

And, as ever when Ireland pair up Sexton and Murray, the only time you sensed Ireland were vulnerable in this management sector was when the two of them slumped to the floor for treatment in the final quarter.

With the half-backs imperious, the dominant pack before them could deny Wales the ability to play their game and help Ireland to maintain their growing attacking approach.

Rugby's simplicity has never changed. Wales have again been undermined by a side setting the platform for victory by dominating them in the tight phased play.

Ireland's close-in game, particularly against Wales in recent meetings, has often delivered diminishing returns which has seen them flag badly. On Saturday they were intimidating from the opening whistle.

Aside from Josh Navidi in a hopelessly outplayed back-row, and the sterling warrior Alun-Wyn Jones, few in the Welsh pack emerged with credit; their front-row was comprehensively bested by those in green.

Wales bemoaned their lack of possession, but, again, the other stunning simplicity of rugby is that a side always gets a chance to retain the ball at a restart. Ireland could, and kept it for vast stretches; Wales did so rarely, and even then they struggled to keep hold of it.

Ireland resourced each ruck, emboldened by gain line success, and Wales mostly disengaged from the contact area the longer the game went on, reflecting the futility of their breakdown work as they comprehensively lost the arm-wrestle.

"In the first-half, probably our discipline cost us, giving them some easy outs and giving them territory in our half, which they took full advantage of," lamented hooker Ken Owens.

"We can't have had more than 20 per cent possession and territory in that first-half. It is frustrating that we put ourselves under pressure at times.

"We gave away nine penalties in the first-half, which is probably more than we have conceded all campaign."

All day, Wales failed miserably to support runners in sufficient numbers at ruck time and Glen Jackson offered no leniency for such laxity; Ireland dictated the contact and hence the contest.

"They didn't throw anything at us that we didn't really expect, but we put ourselves under pressure and they've executed," observed Owens.

"Second-half, they did something similar, and then the boys showed huge character in the last 10 minutes to keep playing, and we almost snuck a result.

Carry

"They kept hold of the ball very well and played in the right areas. They are pretty efficient in how they carry, they've got a lot of numbers at contact and they keep hold of the ball for long periods. We were expecting that."

The point is they were helpless to confound the confident certainty of the home side. Wales will stick to their expansive style, but how much might this jarring setback wound them?

"We've got two games left and we have just got to go into them positively," reckoned Owens.

"There are 10 points up for grabs, and we've just got to try and get them and keep playing positive rugby.

"I think we've been pretty good this campaign. Everyone has written us off, and we've turned some heads. We have been really positive.

"We weren't at our best today, and Ireland probably were tactically a lot better than us and played the territorial battle. We will learn from that.

"When we keep hold of the ball, we create chances. We had three opportunities to score, and we took three chances.

"I wouldn't say it was a step back. We are going in the right direction, we are still blooding new players and we had some boys back from injury today, which is great.

"Ireland are a great side, and if you are indisciplined against them, they punish you, and that's what they did."

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport